Just how much ultra-processed food can one teen eat?
More than some of us consume in a year, apparently! Preliminary research shows that teens, on average, get about two thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods.
What, exactly, is ultra-processed food? The study defines it as “snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little if any intact food."
So imagine a day filled with soda, Doritos, ramen, hot dogs, chicken nuggets -- and not much else. Before you act too shocked, consider that last year the same researchers found that adults get over half of their calories from these sources.
One guess as to what the researchers found when they compared those diets to heart health: Yep, the more ultra-processed foods the teens ate, the worse their heart health looked. Researchers used a scale of risk factors such as weight, high blood pressure, and diabetes to estimate heart health. Each 5% increase in the number of ultra-processed calories the teens ate correlated to a decline of .13 points on the 12-point heart health scale.
But there’s more to consider. Remember the formula I shared with you that shows the impact of lifetime LDL exposure? (If you need a refresher, remember that risk rises and appears to double every decade in proportion to LDL levels.) These teens’ risks, unfortunately, are cumulative.
Plus, eating all that junk food leaves little room for all the good stuff. Once you polish off a fast food meal, you’re probably not going to wash it all down with a fruit-packed smoothie, or whip up a big quinoa salad! And forget about super-charging your immune system with whole and healthy foods packed with vitamins and Omega 3s!
Even if you’re not seeing the teens in your life much these days, one gift you can give them during the holiday season is a reminder about the importance of good nutrition. If heart issues run in your family, sit down with your kids and grandkids to explain how simple, every day changes can make deep impacts on your heart. And set a good example. Often, the most powerful and impactful messages come not through words but through observed actions.
In the new year, I’ll be sharing how I have these conversations with my patients. But until then, speak from your heart and avoid making ultra-processed foods available in your home. Your family’s hearts will thank you!